Two charter schools adopt weighted lotteries in bid to diversify their student bodies

Two Reno-area charter schools are adopting weighted lotteries to give children from low-income households greater access — a move that’s in line with the State Public Charter School Authority’s effort to diversify its student body.

The Charter Authority approved weighted lotteries last month for Doral Academy of Northern Nevada, located in south Reno, and Pinecrest Academy of Northern Nevada, which is planned for Sparks. They will be the first weighted lotteries in Nevada’s charter sector.

“Our schools have been hearing this for a while and I think that, throughout northern Nevada, understand the role that they play in making sure that our schools are representative and serve a representative population of low-income families,” said Rebecca Feiden, executive director of the Charter Authority. “I really appreciate them kind of putting themselves out there and taking the opportunity to lead the way for other schools.”

In late 2017, Nevada’s Legislative Commission approved a regulation that allows charter schools to use weighted admission lotteries, which give preference to students who are economically disadvantaged, have a disability, are learning English as a second language, are migrant students or are homeless, neglected or delinquent. The weighted lotteries approved last month will boost the number of students from low-income households by essentially giving them two tickets in an admission lottery where other students have one ticket.

It’s not a novel idea. The U.S. Department of Education in 2014 expanded the circumstances under which charter schools receiving federal funds could deploy weighted admission lotteries. 

Twenty-six states have laws that either explicitly allow or appear to allow weighted lotteries, said Halley Potter, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a nonpartisan progressive think tank. Three states have partial policies, and 15 states either directly prohibit or appear to prohibit weighted lotteries. (The remaining states don’t have functional charter school laws.)

A report released last year by the Century Foundation called weighted admission lotteries “an area of untapped potential for individual charter schools and authorizers to promote integration.”

But Potter said weighted lotteries aren’t a Band-Aid solution in and of themselves. They rely on marketing and other supports — such as transportation and free or reduced-price lunches — to be effective.

“A weighted lottery can be a really useful tool to ensure stable diversity over time,” she said. “Granted, you need effective recruitment to go along with the weighted lotteries.”

Doral Academy of Northern Nevada’s weighted lottery will kick in if its percentage of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch is less than 90 percent of the same metric for the Washoe County School District. In other words, if 50 percent of Washoe County students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and only 44 percent of Doral students do, then a weighted lottery would occur.

During the 2018-2019 school year, only 7 percent of students attending Doral Academy of Northern Nevada were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch compared with 45 percent of students in the Washoe County School District. Leaders from the charter school acknowledge the gap and say that’s why they’re moving to a weighted lottery, which will be in effect this enrollment cycle. Open enrollment starts today and runs through March 1, and the lottery will occur March 2.

Doral Academy of Northern Nevada serves 814 students in kindergarten through eighth grade and sits along Mount Rose Highway, surrounded by upper-middle class homes. While its students hail from 23 different ZIP codes, Principal Angela Orr said the five-star charter school wants to reach more students from low-income households.

Ultimately, more diversity will benefit the entire student body, she said.

“We think that people grow more when there are more ideas in the world around them,” she said. “We think making a more diverse school will just open up great conversation.”

Doral leaders, however, know the weighted lottery won’t result in a demographically diverse population overnight. Like most charters, it won’t be able to provide transportation for students— a barrier that may be insurmountable for many families. But it is implementing the National School Lunch Program, which will provide free or reduced-price lunch to children in need.

Indra Winquest, the board chairman for Doral Academy of Northern Nevada, said he expects more charter schools to adopt weighted lotteries in the coming years, leading to a fine-tuned process along the way.

“There’s no roadmap for us,” he said.

Pinecrest Academy of Northern Nevada, which also will have a weighted lottery, was one of two new charter schools approved by the Charter Authority in December. The other was Las Vegas Collegiate, a charter school that plans to serve kindergarten through fifth-grade students in West Las Vegas. (Las Vegas Collegiate will not have a weighted lottery.)

Although weighted lotteries could become more common in Nevada’s charter network, Feiden said participation is optional. Parents do not have to disclose their financial status when entering the lottery.